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The Best Way To Improve London's Air? Get Rid Of More Cars

Many residents will support higher fees on drivers if it means living in a happier, cleaner city.

The Best Way To Improve London's Air? Get Rid Of More Cars

Photos: Flickr user Fabrizio Salvetti

London’s air is filthy, killing 10,000 people a year. And the only way to fix it is to face up to the fact that there’s too much traffic and do something about about it.

London's Cycling Commissioner Andrew Gilligan makes several recommendations in an article for London’s Evening Standard newspaper. The most controversial-sounding, echoing the London mayor's suggestion, is that the city should increase its congestion charge, the $17-per-day levy on vehicles entering the center of the capital. And the funny thing is very few people seemingly disagree.

Gilligan’s argument has one main point: Better bike infrastructure is good for everyone, car drivers included. After all, he says, "Everyone who starts cycling is someone who’s no longer taking up space on the bus, or the Tube, or anything like as much space on the roads."

Flickr user David Holt

London is in the process of launching several "cycling superhighways," long-distance, segregated bike lanes with protection at intersections and bike-friendly traffic light sequences. The first, in the Vauxhall neighborhood, has already spurred a 73% increase in the number of people cycling over the bridge, writes Gilligan.

The arguments against the superhighways are those we’ve heard over and over, every time roads are repurposed for vehicles other than cars:

Some people think traffic is like rainwater and the roads are the drains for it. If you narrow the pipe, they say, it will flood. If you block one road, they say, the same amount of traffic will simply spill over to the nearest easiest routes.

But in real life, once the builders have finished, the spill never actually happens. The pipe doesn’t flood; some of the water goes away instead. Because traffic isn’t a force of nature. It’s a product of human choices. If you make it easier and nicer for people not to drive, more people will choose not to drive.

More than a decade ago, London replaced 250 miles of road with bus lanes. The complaints came, but what happened is that cars didn’t gridlock. The buses got quicker, journeys were faster, and after a few months, says Gilligan, "traffic levels plummeted. Everyone benefited, including the people who carried on driving."

I lived in London in 2003, when the congestion charge was introduced. Back then there were almost no bike lanes, and the center was choked with traffic moving at slower than walking speed. When the charge started, my bus commute time dropped to as little as 20 minutes. Previously, the five-mile journey lasted a frustrating 40 minutes to an hour.

Today, according to Google Maps’ transit directions, the journey is back to its old slow duration. In fact, the fastest way seems to be by bike, with the five-mile journey taking an estimated 35 minutes.

As the cycling superhighways come online, more people will cycle, but that’s still not enough. Today the main causes of congestion in London are a 25% drop in gas prices and 40,000 new Uber cabs. What London, and every large city, needs is fewer cars.

Flickr user Garry Knight

One way to do that is just to make things difficult for drivers. For instance, Regent’s Park, one of London’s biggest green spaces, is also one of its most-used traffic routes into the center. Surprisingly, a new plan to reduce traffic through the park is supported by Londoners almost 2:1.

So if the locals support cutting traffic, and if turning road space over to non-car forms of transport makes things easier for everyone, including car-drivers, who exactly is opposing the repurposing of roads? Mostly business-interest groups, but even they support London’s bike lanes in principle.

What we might find is that, just like on the Internet, there’s a lot of noise from a vocal few, without much actual opposition. After all, the people who shout the loudest are usually not the most numerous.

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